Thursday, April 29, 2021

I visited my student Karma Palden in the Hospital

One of my dear Dharma friends and students, Miles McBreen, or Karma Palden, is currently hospitalized with health complications. I recently went to visit him in the hospital. Here is an excerpt from a very sweet post that he wrote on his Instagram page; this is only part of the message:

Yesterday my trusted spiritual friend and root guru, Khenpo Karten Rinpoche, whose kindness this simple yogi will never be able to repay, imparted a protection amulet blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and has sent my photo and name to family and friends in Tibet and elsewhere around the world. Tonight, three large monasteries will be conducting Medicine Buddha and Green Tara Pujas for all sick beings including me in the list of prayer recipients. Along with a Puja tomorrow night through Zoom with Manjushri Dharma Center that really brings warmth to my heart and gentle tears of joy to my eyes.

In any case, know I am happy, I am calm, I am not in pain. I am at peace. I wish the same to everyone else …Cherish every moment you are given in this life. Even the challenges. Especially the challenges, they are a precious opportunity for insight, growth, empathy, love, and compassion.

Here, I will recount a bit about my visit to the hospital to see Miles.

When I entered the hospital, I was greeted by a very kind hospital worker; she was Nepalese and recognized that I was a Buddhist monk. She showed me the way to Miles’ room and gave me his room number.

As I approached his hospital room, I quietly peaked in without his knowing. I saw Miles sitting up on his hospital bed; he was praying his mala and meditating, and he looked quite serious in doing so.
I thought to myself, he doesn’t know that I am here right now watching him. This made me very happy, and I began to smile. As I entered his hospital room and greeted him, he responded, “Hello, Rinpoche, Tashi Delek!” with a smile on his face. I saw that Miles had set up a small altar with statues, images, and other Buddhist articles close to his bed.
When I asked him how he was doing, he said, “I am very good. I am very happy, Rinpoche.” Then I told him, very good! This also makes me very happy, Karma Palden. Often, no one is happy inside of a hospital. Most people in this situation are unhappy because they lose their peace of mind. After this, I was not worried about him because of his positive attitude and positive state of mind.

Very sweetly he told me, “This is because of you.” He says that he often reads my blogs on the Four Noble Truths, Impermanence, and the blog Meditation is Medicine for the Mind. He then said that he goes back and rereads them again and again. He also said that he felt extremely lucky to find Buddhism and to meet me. He explained that he feels that I am a good teacher and good practitioner; truly, I must say, I’m not sure about this, but he felt that this was so. Through his study, he said, finding a good Dharma Teacher is of greatest importance.

Then we spoke a bit about Dharma. We discussed the ‘tong-len’ practice, the meditation of giving all positive actions that you have and will generate in the future and sending them out to all sentient beings, even those who seek to harm you, and taking upon yourself all others’ pain, suffering, bad karma, and negativity. Even though your intention is to take the suffering of sentient beings upon yourself, this does not mean that you will receive all of their suffering and bad karma. Rather, because of your strong compassion, all the causes of your own suffering will be destroyed and the result is that your own suffering is lightened and ultimately eradicated.

We then talked about death and impermanence. Most people are averse to death and do not like to hear about impermanence, not even the words themselves! As a Buddhist monk living in this area, I am often called to the hospital and people’s deathbeds when people are very sick suffering from serious illness or dying. Throughout my life, over many years of traveling to different countries, I have met with many people from diverse cultures and backgrounds in this condition.

At the time of death, one can usually tell whether a person has practiced Dharma throughout their life.

Someone who has not at all considered Dharma during their life, impermanence and death in particular, may be very tormented at the time of death. When I visit them in the hospital, some are in a truly awful state; not only their body, which is of course decrepit with illness or age, but their mental state is often desperate and extremely negative. I have seen with my own eyes people trembling at death with eyes wide with terror. Such frightening scenes affect those around them and we ourselves were filled with dismay.

These individuals have complete identification with their body and their attachments, believing the outside world to be real. Human beings encounter the outside world through their senses, and believe that what they see, hear, touch, taste, and smell through these sense organs is reality.

The more someone has contemplated the holy Dharma, and especially impermanence, the less fear they will have in times of great difficulty.

If the person is someone who has devoted some time to the practice of Dharma, who has contemplated and meditates on impermanence and the twelve links of interdependence, etc, even if they don’t accept Dharma in this lifetime, when they encounter suffering and difficulties they are more able to willingly face them. They are more lighthearted and courageous. They have more internal fortitude and can have a vaster outlook. This brings great benefit during one’s life, and these individuals approach death differently.

Then there are good Dharma practitioners; these practitioners have centered their life around the practice of Dharma, and always have the Three Jewels with them and constantly meditate upon impermanence and death which stay transfixed in their mind. These exceptional individuals have prepared themselves for death beforehand. They are at ease and maintain their peace of mind at the time of death, dying without fear. I have seen people like this, such as my own father and my uncle, with my own eyes, and I saw how they died. At the time of death, these individuals were quite comfortable and prepared.

They do not completely identify themselves with the physical body and see death as a change. Our body dies and falls apart, and we don’t know when we will lose it. The body, however, is not yourself. Your mind is really who you are, and is what you carried from your past life and what you will bring to future lives. The mind is always with you. Therefore, the body cannot be you. Deluded people believe that his body is my home whereas this body is definitely not your permanent home but rather a guesthouse. The fourth verse of the “Thirty-seven Practices of Bodhisattvas” states:

“Loved ones who have long kept company will part.

Wealth created with difficulty will be left behind.

Consciousness, the guest, will leave the guesthouse of the body.

Let go of this life - this is the practice of Bodhisattvas”

That being said, I was extremely happy to see my student Karma Palden and to witness his attitude in the hospital. Afterwards, he sent me a few very sweet voice message which I have also included below:

Tashi Delek Rinpoche.

Very good to hear you’re getting a vaccine, thank you for the good energy and sending energy my way. It’s working. I’m not better healthwise, my body is doing worse today...
So my blood in my body is low again, but all the things that happen with low blood, dizziness, nausea, hard things, suffering, when blood is low, are not happening at this time. It’s much easier to remain in peace with the mind than it has been the past few weeks. I believe the energy is greatly helping. Thank you, sending you lots of love.

It is delightful to be exhausting much of my negative karma, I am very happy...

A few days later on Thursday, 4/29, Karma Palden had surgery to assess his medical condition and to diagnose his complications. He was put under with general anesthesia. I went to visit him a second time once he began to recover and come back to his senses.

I brought a copy of the first draft of this blog and we read it together out loud. He was unable to read it without break; he often stopped to laugh or stopped to cry.

Afterwards, he asked me, "Rinpoche, may I ask you a question?" He then told me than he was in the process of completing the preliminary or foundational practices, called Ngöndro. One of the pillars of the inner preliminaries are 100,000 prostrations. He told me that to date, he has completed around 22,000 prostrations, which he has done every morning for a year. He then said that because his body was now in a delicate condition, he was worried he wouldn't be able to do his prostrations while his body recovers. He asked whether praying with a prayer wheel would be an admissible alternative.

I clasped his hands and smiled, responding, "Absolutely!" I thought to myself, he is in the hospital in this condition, yet his thoughts are on his prostrations. Moreover, if anyone knows Miles, they may know that his physical abilities are in some ways limited. This made me very pleased and happy.

Actually, every time that I visited Karma Palden or communicated with him while he was in the hospital, he never talked about his health or his physical condition. He only wanted to talk about his practice and the Dharma. He has said that since the onset of the pandemic, his practice has improved because he has been on a sort of retreat in the Big Sur, and he was worried that he would not be able to continue this.

Miles also said that he may now be on the road to recovery and on his way back home, although his body may take up to a year to fully recuperate. He was very appreciative of the prayers and good energy that others have sent to him, and feels that it has made a difference.

So, everyone, all of my Dharma brothers and sisters, I want to remind and request you to please, be smart, be careful, and take good care of your precious human body.

If and when something happens to your physical body, just think, this may very well be the result of my previous karma. It is best, though, to minimize your own worrying about it. Worry does not help. As Shantideva said, “If a problem can be solved there is no need to worry. If there is no solution, what use is worrying?”

Worry does, however, harm your peace of mind. Thus, it is very important not to let your mind become disturbed. Your mind is always in your own hands. Moreover, mental happiness can help to dispel physical suffering. So, try to be happy. 

My Sangha is always in my heart and in my prayers. I send you all my love and best wishes. Tashi Delek

~Khenpo Karten Rinpoche

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Importance of Oral Transmissions and How to Receive Oral Transmissions in the Modern Age

Even before the pandemic, I had been contemplating imparting oral transmissions of different practices that we hold at the Manjushri Dharma Center. Before the existence of technology, all oral transmissions were given in person, often in private. Then, as an example of a recent innovation, this past year His Holiness the Dalai Lama Himself gave an online transmission and empowerment of Avalokiteshvara through a live video. Then, seeking guidance from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, many monks and Lamas asked whether it was possible to give oral transmissions over a virtual medium such as a video or audio stream. His Holiness affirmed that it is possible to give oral transmissions using modern technology. He cited a story from Buddha Shakyamuni’s time in which a sick aspiring monk was given his vows through a written letter. He also mentioned that if Buddha Shakyamuni were alive today, His Holiness believes that He may have used technology and social media for the Dharma. What His Holiness did mention, however, was that the student must have good concentration, motivation, devotion when listening to the Teacher.

Over the past several weeks, I have given oral transmissions of various texts that we regularly practice during our weekly virtual practices on Zoom. Before receiving a transmission, it is important to understand what an oral transmission is, the historical lineage of a transmission, the qualities of those who confer the transmission, and how one should receive a transmission. Then, one can begin to understand the benefits of receiving a transmission and the disadvantages of not receiving a transmission.

1. Description of a Transmission:

Empowerment and Transmission are unique to Vajrayana Buddhism. They are not found in the Theravada tradition, which is based on the Sutras mostly practiced in countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma, etc. It is also not found in the Mahayana practices of Buddhism in countries like China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. However in the Vajrayana Buddhism practiced in countries such as Bhutan, Mongolia, Tibet and the Himalayan regions, it becomes imperative to receive these transmissions in order to be able to engage with the practice of the Yidam, or Deity. Before the accomplishment of any Yidam deity practice, it is a basic requirement to receive the three transmissions, namely Empowerment, Transmission, and Instructions, from the Teacher. The minimal requirement to engage in such practice is to receive the oral transmissions. In higher Tantrayanas, one must receive all three: the empowerment, transmission and instruction. I will not describe all three in depth here.

As we have been engaged in online practices that require these transmissions, I was concerned for students who do not have them and thought it may be of benefit. Since the teachings require at the very least the oral transmissions, my reason for giving these transmissions for the past few weeks was to fulfill one of the fundamental requirements to enable students to practice the teachings. This type of online oral transmission was novel and a first for me.

During the Buddha’s time, all transmissions were given in person. However, in this modern time when the Buddhist teachings are flourishing in different countries with different cultures at a different time, as I mentioned before, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that the oral transmissions and also the empowerments could be given via an online medium. With this in mind, I decided to give the oral transmissions of my own practices online.
Luung is the Tibetan word for transmission. Ka Trol wa in Tibetan has the connotation of receiving permission to practice the teachings. Therefore, when involved with such practices as the Yidam deity, having received the Luung means having received the permission to engage in that particular practice. In the past in Tibet, it was customary for a teacher to confer the transmission, empowerment and instructions to a student only if the student had favorable qualities of practicing the teaching and if it was beneficial to the student. I feel that the transmission, or Luung, can be delivered online, however, I do have reservations on giving the Empowerment and Instructions online. Therefore I will not be giving these online.

2. Lineage of Luung

Now the teacher conferring the Luung must be one who possesses the pure and unbroken lineage of the transmission. For example, knowing where one received the transmission and then from whom did my Teacher receive his transmission, and so on. There is what is called a special direct transmission: the student is asked to visualize the Teacher as a manifestation of the Yidam deity, and in doing so receives the transmission directly from the deity without any human Teacher involved. This is an extraordinarily very short lineage transmission called Nyeju in Tibetan. Then there are very extensive lineage lines of transmission starting from Tara herself and passed down from one Teacher to another. In this extensive line of transmissions, it is important to keep in mind the continuity of the lineage without any breaks in the transmission.

As an example, Namchoe Migyur Dorjee at 13 years old would have daily visions of Guru Padmasambhava, Buddha Amitabha, and Avalokiteshwara. Each day he would receive manifestations of the Dharmakaya, Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya and speak to them as if speaking to another person. For instance, the Dechen Monlam prayer “Ngo Tsar Sangye Nawa Thaye..” is an actual practice that Namchoe Migyur Dorjee received directly from Amitabha Buddha. We may think that it must have been written by someone but it is actually the direct words of Amitabha Buddha to humans. This kind of transmission is an extremely direct and potent lineage filled with great blessings. Hence, if one is able to receive such a transmission, it carries great benefit and blessing for the practice. In Tibetan this is called Luung Gi Gyupa, meaning once the Lama has established conviction in the unbroken authentic lineage of the transmission then it is given to the student.

3. Characteristic of the Teacher giving Transmission:

What qualities does the Teacher giving the transmission have? The Teacher at the very least must be well-versed in reciting the practices associated with that Luung. With the Tantrayana practice the Teacher must also be someone who has done rigorous practice, completed retreats and who possesses experiential knowledge through contemplation and meditation. As an example, during a 3-year retreat, one’s practice is to epitomize the depth, power and precision of that practice and to awaken pure perception of this world as a sacred realm. The highest level of teaching is someone who is accomplished in the Samaya of the secret Mantrayana, having the vows of Pratimoksha on the outside and the Bodhisattva vows on the inside, as well as being highly experienced in the Kyey Rim and Dzog Rim. So, all this is immensely important in a Teacher.

4. How must a student receive Transmission:

One who receives the transmission must visualize the Teacher as a manifestation of Vajradhara, or Dorjee Chang in Tibetan. All lineages transcend from the Vajra Holder. As one sits to receive the transmission, one must listen with acute attention and generate the motivation to engage in the practice of the teachings in the future for the benefit of all sentient beings. The most important part is not to break the sound continuity. It does not matter whether it is in a different language. When I recite the Luung in Tibetan (as I have received it in Tibetan), it does not matter whether one understands or not but the important part is to hear the sound. One must visualize oneself as a deity, be it Tara or Avalokiteshwara. Visualize each of your two ears as being an eight-petaled lotus flower. The stems then travel down through your neck and into your heart to form an eight-petaled lotus upon which is the yellow Tibetan word Dhi seated on a sun and moon disc. As the Teacher recites the Luung, visualize the words and sounds emanating as body, speech and mind blessings being transmitted from this lotus flower into your heart. The words from the Teacher, in the form of Ali and Kali blessings, gently flow into oneself and dissolve into your heart thereby receiving the transmission of body, speech and mind.

The correct way to practice is to first receive the transmission, then the instructions, followed by empowerment, and finally the practice to gain experience. Therefore, the transmission is the first step. In Tibet, if one has an affinity for a certain Yidam - be it Tara, Avalokiteshwara or Amitabha - one will first try to receive a transmission of that Yidam, then seek instructions, then receive the empowerment, and finally engage in practice.
To share a story, the first Do Drubchen Tenpae Nyima had a student. One day the student requested the transmission of Guru Padmasambhava from his Teacher. When asked why, the student replied that he felt close to Guru Padmasambhava and wished to engage in the practice. He thought of receiving the transmission first, then the instruction followed by the empowerment as was customary. However, when Do Drubchen Tenpae Nyima gave the transmission, the student was such a special and receptive vessel and of such caliber that he was able to realize the nature of the mind while receiving the oral transmission. In that first sitting, he was able to realize all three aspects of the transmission, instruction and empowerment. Hence, Do Drubchen Tenpai Nyima said that his student did not need the remaining instructions and empowerment. Therefore, realization is the most important. If one is unable to recognize the nature of the Yidam, no matter how much transmission and empowerment one receives, one must still strive to attain the realization.

5. Benefits of receiving Transmission:

With transmission, the Teacher gives the permission and empowers the student to engage in the practice. The day you receive transmission, the Teacher gives you his entire unbroken lineage. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the unbroken lineage is extremely important. The benefit of doing the practice after having received the transmission is akin to doing it a hundred times without the transmission.

6. The disadvantages of not receiving Transmission:

Without transmission, you cannot practice and you will not realize the benefits of the three higher level practices, namely, Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga. As an example, Marpa Lotsawa gave Milarepa a very difficult time. He did not give him any teaching for many years and subjected him to hard labor. A person unfamiliar with the teachings of Buddha may see Marpa as a cruel person and have sympathy towards Milarepa, but it is actually the contrary. Marpa loved no one more than Milarepa, however, his means to teach Milarepa was by eliminating the bad karma Milarepa accumulated as a result of killing people in the storm conjured by him as a vengeful act against his uncle and aunt. One must purify all bad karma first and only then will one be able to practice and see benefits of one’s practice. Seeing this, Marpa's wife, Yum Damepa was extremely sympathetic towards Milarepa. With her advice, she and Milarepa wrote a letter on behalf of Marpa Lotsawa, packed some special offerings and sent Milarepa to Ngogtung Chotor to request some teachings. Ngogtung Chotor was Marpa Lotsawa’s student and when Ngogtung Chotor saw the letter, he agreed to give teachings to Milarepa and asked him to sit with the other students. When Milarepa received transmissions, instructions and empowerment from Ngogtung Chotor, Milarepa did not receive any blessings from the teachings and Milarepa did not experience any transformation in his heart. All the other students of Ngogtung Chotor experienced many changes in their practice and realization. When asked why Milarepa did not experience any apparent changes to his heart from his practices when other students were seeing noticeable transformations, Milarepa then told the truth that he had forged a letter from his Teacher Marpa Lotsawa. At that, Ngogtung Chotor said that it is because he had not received any blessings from his Teacher and that was the reason he did not see any change in his practice or his experience. He said that this was not correct and that the Teacher’s Ka Luung is extremely important; hence, the Teacher’s transmission becomes extremely important. Ka and Luung are understood as permission from the Teacher. It is merely the permission given by the Teacher to the student, whatever the practice be. Therefore, in Vajrayana Buddhism, without transmission, one is unable to receive the blessings of any practice, especially that of higher yoga tantras. That is the disadvantage of not receiving a transmission. As a metaphor, even if one presses a handful of sand and continues to persistently do so, no oil will come off it. Similarly, without transmission from a qualified Teacher, there will be no result.

Sometime ago, when I asked my students what they will practice, they replied, “just go to, it has everything.” Or some have said to me, “I found this from, please recite this; I want to practice this.” These days it is easy because everything is on Google and it is simply a matter of downloading texts and explanations. I have replied that first, I do not know all that is on Google, secondly, all of Buddhist practices are on Google, especially in the West, all the highest tantric teachings are on Google, and that I do not have transmissions, instructions and empowerment on such teachings. Buddha’s teachings are expansive. The Sutras have 84,000 teachings of Buddha and there are even more in the secret Vajrayana teachings. Therefore, everything that is uploaded on the internet that one can see and find interesting cannot be easily practiced. Practice is done with the aim of transforming and purifying our minds and hearts; through this process, once we begin to clear away our delusions and ignorance, we can experience the essence of emptiness. This experience allows us to see the truth and the nature of reality as it is which eventually leads to the freedom from the suffering of this cyclic existence; that is the ultimate purpose of the practice. So, in order to do so, it is very important that that practice come from an extremely reliable source that is pure and has an unbroken lineage.

I, Khenpo Karten Rinpoche, dictated this message in April of 2021 after giving a series of oral transmissions to my students over an online video platform. This blog was translated and transcribed by Dechen Paltso, through a series of conversations and audio recorded messages, and further edited by student, Karma Choeying.